America Needs a COVID-19 Reckoning

An illustration of a conference table shaped like a coronavirus particle.
Getty / The Atlantic

The coronavirus pandemic is a far greater economic and societal threat than anything the United States has faced in recent memory. The 9/11 attacks took nearly 3,000 lives. COVID-19 has taken a quarter million. The nation’s responses to these two threats—one a palpable and immediate terrorist attack; the other a virus that crossed our borders sight unseen—have been wildly divergent.

About a year after 9/11, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a bipartisan commission to “prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding” the attacks. By figuring out what had gone wrong, the men and women on the panel would help prevent the same mistakes from recurring.

A year has now passed since the first official reports of a new coronavirus in China. Our day of reckoning should be upon us, but Americans are too lost in our current tragedy and governmental obfuscation to protect ourselves from another catastrophe, be it another coronavirus, a deadly strain of the flu, or any other biological threat, including a bioterror attack that could dwarf the impact of COVID-19. This is a grave mistake.

One of the first acts of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration should be the creation of a COVID-19 commission to address the pandemic and prepare for future threats. His newly announced COVID-19 task force will rightly focus on helping the United States find a way out of our current morass. But the country also needs a separate, bipartisan inquiry that points to long-term structural solutions that would prevent a future disease from causing the levels of death, heartache, and economic disruption that the coronavirus has caused. If the new Democratic president and Republicans in Congress can agree on nothing else, surely they can agree on the need to learn from Americans’ current suffering.

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Formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the 9/11 Commission interviewed more than 1,000 people during a two-year investigation. It held 10 days of public hearings. In 2004, the bipartisan committee issued a 585-page report that identified “failures of imagination, policy, capabilities, and management” across the government. One key problem that members noted was a lack of coordination among government agencies, which left essential dots of intelligence unconnected. By overlooking crucial details—including false visa applications, fake passports, and suspect travel patterns—multiple agencies missed opportunities to thwart the men who ended up hijacking passenger jets and using them as weapons.

The report showed the urgent need to restructure government operations to deal with the long-term, recurrent threat of terrorism. Congress had created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and the report established clear priorities for the fledgling agency. Today, DHS employs 240,000 people and oversees the country’s naturalization and immigration system, cybersecurity, and the TSA, which was also created in the aftermath of the attacks. The TSA is ever present in the lives of traveling Americans today, with its 47,000 officers performing all searches and screenings at airports.

DHS’s duties also include ensuring an effective emergency response to major disasters, aiding recovery from disasters, building a comprehensive national incident-management system among federal, state, and local authorities, and developing comprehensive communication strategies for major disasters.

The second significant institutional change was the creation of a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence in 2004. The DNI’s primary function is to oversee and coordinate among the NSA, the CIA, and other parts of the U.S. intelligence community, so that information that needs to be shared across the government doesn’t end up siloed within a single entity.

These two changes transformed our government’s response to terrorist threats. Over time, federal surveillance powers were expanded, as was the scope of some criminal laws. After 9/11, Americans accepted more limits on their freedoms: increased security at airports, bag checks and camera surveillance at major public events. While perhaps not welcomed, these limitations were widely understood as necessary to protecting our nation against future attacks. The 9/11 Commission had focused the discussion, both in Congress and among the general public, on which adjustments and compromises Americans should contemplate in the name of safety.

Like the 9/11 attacks, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed a dangerous lack of preparedness. In April, Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, circulated a discussion draft of legislation to establish a bipartisan commission to provide a full accounting of the country’s response to the pandemic. The draft mimics the legislation that led to the establishment of the 9/11 Commission almost word for word, except that the nominating process for the new panel would be more overtly partisan than that for the 9/11 Commission. For a COVID-19 commission to succeed, it needs bipartisan support from the beginning; its purpose must be to move beyond blame and seek long-range solutions to America’s vulnerability to disease.

Throughout the course of this pandemic, politics has been an obstacle to public-health initiatives. A true accounting of what led us to our situation today—where the U.S. ranks among the 10 worst countries in the world on a deaths-per-capita and infections-per-capita basis—requires an honest assessment of our failures, politics and party aside.

A COVID-19 commission could interview officials from the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, which in November 2019 issued a report warning about the coronavirus then emerging in southern China. Panel members could also interview Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, who was first notified about the new disease on January 3. They could speak with the White House national security adviser and his deputy, who warned the president of the threat on January 28. The list of people with potential insights also includes authorities at the local, state, and federal level; intelligence and law-enforcement officials; diplomats; border-control officials; pharmaceutical executives; and employees of global-health institutions. The COVID-19 commission should analyze resource-allocation blunders, potential failures of oversight by the White House and Congress, and the inability of the federal government to leverage its full weight to combat the disease.

The questioning should sidestep the politics of the moment—as members of the 9/11 Commission tried to do—and focus firmly instead on what the nation could have done better. As with the 9/11 terror attacks, the coronavirus pandemic is not the result of a single misstep. Our pandemic failures are the result of years of unpreparedness across administrations and months of downplaying the severity of the virus. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s pandemic-response unit in 2018, but America’s cycle of inattention to disease-related threats has roots that go back much further than that.

The list of agencies with a role in the U.S. pandemic response includes DHS, FEMA, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the Public Health Service. Yet they, like the agencies responsible for counterterrorism prior to 9/11, often act separately and without detailed knowledge of what others are doing. The establishment of DHS and the DNI as coordinating entities can act as a blueprint for post-coronavirus reforms. A COVID-19 commission might consider the creation of a new body, equivalent to the National Security Council or National Economic Council, but for disease. A National Disease Council could coordinate efforts to prepare for and defend ourselves against natural or man-made biological threats. Developing a Cabinet-level position, akin to the DNI, to lead this National Disease Council would allow for the implementation of a national pandemic-preparedness program.

Even without new legislation from Congress, the new administration will have the authority to do more than the federal government did in the early days of the pandemic. The National Emergencies Act of 1976, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, and the Disaster Relief Act of 1988 grant the president the power to declare health emergencies and direct the Public Health Service as needed. These laws essentially allow the president and the federal government to do what is best for the people in times of crisis. Under existing presidential powers, Biden, once in office, could enforce national guidelines for mask wearing, the size of gatherings, and the rollout of tests, treatments, or vaccines.

But the severity of the current crisis demands the reform of other structures that have impeded America’s response to the pandemic. A COVID-19 commission would be the best vehicle to identify ways to make this happen.

The federal government responded to the events of 2001 with comprehensive institutional reform that improved the country’s ability to prevent terrorist activity and respond effectively to any attacks that occurred. COVID-19 has already caused nearly 100 times as many deaths in the United States as 9/11 did. The need for prompt, decisive action is obvious.

The authors of the 9/11 Commission report wrote, “If the government’s leaders understood the gravity of the threat they faced and understood at the same time that their policies to eliminate it were not likely to succeed any time soon, then history’s judgment will be harsh.” One could argue that the danger of a new virus wasn’t fully appreciated in advance. In the future, we will have no such excuse.